As mentioned last week, in October 1984 I was the keynote speaker of ‘The View from Earth, 1984’, a major weekend event in Big Bear Lake, California, with six of the astronauts, a big NASA exhibition, and other distinguished speakers including Gene Roddenberry and Dr. Brian O’Leary.
It was followed by a month’s lecture tour, during which I spoke at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and NASA Ames Research Centre in San Jose, attended the Case for Mars 2 Conference in Boulder, Colorado, and toured other facilities including Mount Wilson Observatory, the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, and the Atlas-Convair planet in San Diego. I saw the Galileo Jupiter probe in assembly at JPL, and visited the control rooms for Voyager 2 and Solar Mesosphere Explorer. I met many other writers and space scientists, including Poul and Karen Anderson, Greg and Astrid Bear, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Dr. Ron Bracewell, Dr. Robert Forward, Dr. Ed Krupp, and Dr. Jim Randolph, head of Mission Planning at JPL, of whom I was to see a lot more in later years.
But I did it all at my own expense, because the ‘View from Earth’ organisers went bankrupt during their event. They had brought me over on an Apex return and at the end of the month, when my funds and credit were used up, I went to LAX for my flight home, only to be told that the ticket had never been paid for and I was stranded. I knew better than to go to the British consulate and I relied on the kindness of friends in Los Angeles and elsewhere for the next few weeks, until I got myself on to the speakers’ programme at the World Science Fiction Convention, where I sold enough copies of my book Man and the Planets to raise my fare home. But almost everyone said, “Do you mind taking a cheque?” I thought there would be no problem, but under California law, unique in the USA then and since changed, it took three weeks for a cheque to clear and three months for a foreign national to open a bank account. I had to make all the cheques over to the friend I was staying with and wait it out. But meanwhile, I had gained more speaking engagements and sold more books. At the end of my stay in California I had £100 in hand, which was enough for me to return by way of Florida – and Jeri Bell of NASA, who featured in Parts 1 and 2 , had invited me to the dawn launch of the Challenger.
The mission, ‘STS-41-G’ in the complicated code which was dropped two years later, had a crew of seven, including two women astronauts for the first time. It was Sally Ride’s second and last spaceflight, and Kathy Sullivan became the first US woman to walk in space. The crew deployed the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite, which remained operational for the next 21 years, and continued the programme of radar studies of the Earth from orbit.
After the Discovery delay my California friends expressed great misgivings about the launch date, but the Challenger was a well-tried vehicle and the liftoff was right on time. Jeri had a staff pass to the VIP area at the Cape once again, but on the morning it had been stolen from her car. As she was President of the Cape Canaveral Navy League (I was to escort her to their annual dinner that night, kilted of course), she took me with a party of friends into the restricted area of the Port Canaveral naval dockyard, to watch the launch from directly across the water at a distance of five miles. Although we were further away we had an unobstructed view across the water, whereas at the VIP area the pad would be obscured by trees.
Liftoff was twenty minutes before dawn, and we were almost due south of Launch Complex 39, so from our angle of view it was still in semi-darkness. The white Orbiter was face-on to us and brightly floodlit, clearly seen through binoculars. We didn’t have a radio to follow the countdown, but as there was no venting and the swing arm (which I’d walked along in 1979) was back, clearly it was on schedule and firing was imminent. The sign that things were really going to happen was that the Shuttle ‘took its hat off’, as the umbilical cap lifted away from the External Tank.
There was a flash as the main engines ignited, then the vehicle blurred and disappeared behind a cloud of smoke and steam. A second or two later it rose over the cloud, the brilliant yellow flames of the solid boosters casting a path of light across the sea towards us. With the semi-darkness, the solid motors’ flame pattern and the silence (the sound would take 25 seconds to reach us), there was a strong impression that I was watching a huge firework – whereas in 1975, at the Apollo liftoff in daylight, I’d been very much aware that I was watching a manned vehicle.
The Orbiter made its roll, pushing the thick smoke trail away from it into the twilight, and went up through the layers of cloud. I was alternating between binoculars and camera, and remembering how the Corporal missile that I saw at South Uist in 1959 lit them from the inside, I managed to catch it in one of the upper layers. That was when the sound reached us, not the distinctive crackle of shockwaves at that distance but a continuous, almost musical boom like an enormous gong. The others in the party were cursing the clouds, but I was happy with the thought that it would be back in view in a minute – though we must have missed a spectacular contrail display, because as the stratosphere winds brought the trail into view it was glowing blue-white in sunlight, contrasting ethereally with the black undersides of the clouds.
The Shuttle was above contrail height when it came back into view and the solid boosters separated immediately afterwards. It was a very clean separation, because there was no flare and most unusually the boosters didn’t tumble, but kept going on a parallel course like tiny sparks, drawing thin trails of smoke. (They can just be seen among the clouds, below and to the right of the Orbiter, in my photo of the separation, though it failed to capture the smoke trails.) The Main Engine flame of the Orbiter was a pure, unearthly white – Venus beside it would have looked yellow. Clouds intervened again and we had only one more glimpse of the Challenger, on its own now with no sign of the boosters.
“The best comment on the new atmosphere at the launches was Jeri Bell’s,” I wrote at the time, “as we finally lost sight of the vehicle. ‘Thank goodness that one’s gone, now I can get down to serious work on the next one.’ ‘That one’ was on October 5th, ‘the next one’ is scheduled for November 6th, and the one after that for December 8th. With three Orbiters operational and the fourth soon to come, NASA’s freight line up to orbit is open for business.” Unfortunately, a black day was coming, with the loss of the Challenger in January 1986, and thereafter the ‘freight line’ took a very different form.
Coming next: Shuttle Trainer, Houston, 27th July 1986
- Eyewitness to History (1): Apollo through Binoculars
- Eyewitness to History (2): Discovery Landing, STS-41D, September 5th, 1984